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Shining Rock students settle in

fr shiningrockWith only three days of school under their belts, students attending Shining Rock Classical Academy were already settling into their routine on Monday morning.

They donned the new charter school’s colors and logo while also incorporating their own uniqueness into their uniforms. 

For most students it’s just another school year, but for the school’s founding members, seeing students filling up desks is a victory that has been three years in the making. 

“It’s just exceeded every expectation I had,” said Nancy East, a Shining Rock founding board member, as she held the door open for students arriving to school Monday. “You just never know what to expect and you build it up in your head for so long — but the positive energy has been incredible — it feels like a family already and that’s exactly what we we’re hoping to accomplish.”

Katie Gerstel, a first-year third-grade teacher at Shining Rock, said she sent out an email update to all of her classroom parents on Friday and received great feedback saying that their students were happy at school.

“I think our kids are fantastic and the teachers are already a family — I feel very supported by everybody here,” she said. 

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The final months leading up to the first day of school have been tumultuous for Shining Rock leaders. Between trying to navigate the new regulations governing charter schools and dealing with controversy surrounding its search for a permanent location, leaders haven’t had a moment to stop for a moment and appreciate how far they’ve come. 

They were finally able to step back — If just for a moment — to reflect on their efforts as they watched more than 200 students enter The Wilson Children's Complex at Lake Junaluska for the first day of class. 

“Of course it's gratifying to hear that kids and parents are happy,” said Tara Keilberg, Shining Rock board chairwoman. “We still have much work to do. Let me quote a little Churchill: ‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.’”



Haywood County Sheriff’s deputies directed traffic from 7:30 to 7:50 a.m. but drop off went smoothly with little delay and no wait for others driving through Lake Junaluska. Keilberg said keeping traffic flowing was important to the school because Shining Rock didn’t want to be a burden on lake residents. 

“We want to be a good neighbor — we don’t want to be in the way,” she said Monday morning. 

While parents currently have to drop off and pick up their kids at the charter school, Shining Rock is working on getting two buses up and running in order to provide east and west routes from the Jackson County line to the Buncombe County line. One bus has been purchased but the school doesn’t yet have a title. There are also plans for the students to decorate the bus to make it their own. 

In the meantime, athletic director Jerimy Rinker has been tasked with purchasing a second used bus for the school. Once the buses are up and running, they will not make house-to-house stops but will have a number of central pick-up locations. 



The Wilson Children’s Complex seemed to be a ready made location for the new charter school, but it’s easy to see the work teachers put in before the first dya to make their students feel right at home. It’s a little different than what many are used to, but they didn’t seem to mind. 

The three kindergarten classes are located in one large room with partitions dividing it out into three smaller spaces. While the partitions allow teachers to break into smaller groups for instruction, they also allow the opportunity for larger group activities and team teaching on certain lessons or projects. On Monday morning, all the kindergartners were joyfully singing along with a song that teaches them the days of the week. 

“We’ve got everything we could possibly need here,” said Gerstel.

Gerstel and Christina White share classroom space for their two third-grade classes. The two teachers enjoy the flexibility they have to teach alongside each other or put up the partition to offer two different lessons.  

Limited space in the center forces staff to be a little creative when it comes to utilizing space. There are partitioned areas in the hallways for office space and the music and art teachers use a mobile cart to take their lessons to each classroom throughout the day. 



Kindergartner Rhiannon Connolly was all smiles as her mom Jenny Hall of Clyde dropped her off at school Monday morning. When looking at where she should send her shy daughter — who has never been to daycare or pre-K, Hall said she has been following the charter school’s progress for a year or more. 

“I didn’t know much about charter schools until I started researching school systems a year ago,” she said. While she also heard good things about the elementary school in her neighborhood, she felt Shining Rock was the best fit for her daughter. 

“I like that there is a strong academic focus and a lot of hands-on learning,” Hall said. “And I really like the fact that they will learn a lot outside of the classroom.”

Hall is referring to Shining Rock’s commitment to experiential learning with field trips and full days of educational activities outdoors. The first of many of these days will be Sept. 8 at Lake Logan. On Sept. 10, Shining Rock has scheduled a half-day clean up around Lake Junaluska. 

School director Ben Butler said several classes have already gotten out of the classroom for nature hikes and writing assignments on the Lake Junaluska campus. Trips are being scheduled each week so that all grades would be in a quarterly rotation. 

“It's a work in progress, but already we're getting very positive responses from our students and parents,” he said. “Education is always better when students can see real world applications. Getting students out of the classroom to learn gives more meaning to the content they learn in the classroom.”

Several other parents said the outdoor learning was a main factor in deciding to enroll their child in the charter school. 

Laura Arrington of Waynesville said her first-grader Daniel was “all boy” and had too much energy to be stuck behind a desk during school. 

“I felt this was a better fit for him because of more hands-on activities,” she said. “He hated school last year so it was hard to send him, but now he loves it.”

John and Leah Stover decided to enroll their third-grader at Shining Rock because of the emphasis on outdoor education. Previously homeschooled, they said their daughter is accustomed to being outdoors more.

“She doesn’t need to be behind a desk for seven hours a day,” Leah said. 

Experiential learning is part of Shining Rock’s curriculum — Core Knowledge Sequence — developed by E. D. Hirsch Jr. The rigorous content is supposed to be taught to students in multiple stages, allowing for a solid foundation of math, science, English and history to be built early on before adding layer and context to the material from kindergarten through eighth grade. 

Gerstel and fellow third-grade teacher Christina White said the Common Knowledge curriculum integrates all subjects into a single lesson. For example, White said her class isn’t just going to read a book. They are going to look at maps to help them associate where the author of the book grew up to provide context. 

“It creates a basis for what they’re learning and why it’s important,” White said. 

Music teacher Daniel Mull and art teacher Kirby Phillips said they are both enjoying their first year of teaching at the charter school. As she wheeled her cart to the next classroom, she stopped for a moment to talk about the students’ upcoming projects. Kindergartners and first-graders will be learning lines and color concepts by doing some sculpting while second- through sixth-graders will be creating their own sketchbooks to keep with them through the year for other projects. 

Mull rolled his keyboard into a third-grade class and taught them about musical staffs using a game of musical staff hopscotch. 

“I love being part of a new school — it’s amazing what they’ve been able to accomplish here,” he said. “I’m looking forward to building my own music program — where else would you be able to do that?”

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